Digging in

March 11, 2015
Sarah Benton

By Sue  Beardon

From little saplings …
International volunteers join Palestinians in planting the wealth of their nation

March 10, 2015

Every year, around this time of year, Jews around the world observe the holiday of Tu Bishvat, colloquially referred to as “the birthday of the trees.”

This February, no fewer than three Jewish organizations devoted their efforts to planting in the Palestinian territories with the express purpose of opposing the occupation. I joined one of these – the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which initiated a tree planting campaign, bringing a delegation of more than 20 Jewish anti-occupation activists to plant olive saplings at the Tent of Nations, a family farm where the IDF uprooted 1,500 olive trees. Director for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence Ilana Sumka surmised that the uprooting at the Tent of Nations was due to its proximity to a nearby settlement: “We can only guess why the Israeli military – which gave Tent of Nations neither advance warning nor compensation – would destroy 1,500 fruit trees on private Palestinian property. A new road to the nearby settlements, or perhaps a new settlement altogether? I can’t think of a good reason for the destruction of those trees or a good reason to antagonize a peaceful family.”

A sapling in the ground, minutes after being planted by Green Intifada volunteers. Photo by Anna Van Hollen

The poignancy of this was not lost on those of us who grew up with Zionist narratives. The Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Zionist organization that, among other things, runs the Taglit-Birthright program, has for years used tree planting to strengthen the relationship between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel. It has become frequent practice for Jews to donate money to the JNF for tree planting – not only on Tu Bishvat, but also to mark the occasion of other major life turning points – births, deaths, weddings, bar and bat mitzvah, among others. The JNF website boasts that it has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel.

Planting a sapling at Tent of Nations.*

The practice of tree planting embodies not only a specific tactical offensive, but also symbolizes an entire narrative central to Zionist ideology. The same JNF website, in explaining why tree planting is a priority, states, “When the pioneers of the State [of Israel] arrived, they were greeted by barren land.” The narrative of barren land is absolutely central to the narrative of Zionism, as is the accompanying narrative that until the arrival of Jewish settlers, the land was empty not only of agriculture, but also of people. These tropes operate in Zionist discourses in order to discredit the vibrant histories of Palestinians in the land now occupied by Israel – land which was never barren and had been cultivated by Palestinians for centuries.

The tent of nations orchard before and after destruction by Israeli bulldozers, May 2014. Landowner Daoud Nassar wrote on Facebook: “Today at 08.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1500 apricot and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.”

In addition to tree planting, tree uprooting is another political tactic utilized in the region. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 7,342 olive trees were damaged between January and September 2014 (and tens of thousands over recent years). Over 100,000 Palestinian families rely, either directly or indirectly, on the olive harvest for their survival. Tree uprooting has thus emerged as a tactic of dispossessing Palestinians from their land as well as punishing, intimidating and terrorizing those who resist. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and vigilante settlers have used tree uprooting as a terror tactic in recent years. This despite the fact that the Torah explicitly says that one’s enemies’ trees should never be destroyed.

 Sue Beardon

Our delegation of mainly American Jews included 3 rabbis, a civil rights activist who had been one of the organisers of Freedom Summer in the south of the USA 50 years ago, and the recently retired head of USAid for the West Bank and Gaza. As well as the tree planting the delegation met with leading non-violent activists from both Israel and Palestine and leading Palestinian politicians. We visited Hebron and the South Hebron Hills, meeting with UN worker Hamed Quwasmeh and Breaking the Silence’s Shay Davidovitch. We heard a range of views, ranging from the state building emphasis of Salam Fayyad and Sam Bahour, and the one state approach of people like Sami Awad, seeking to engage with some settler leaders to challenge some of the “non-negotiables”.

We had some brushes with the army whilst we were there. Our meeting with Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements in Hebron was almost prevented by the army refusing us access. Eventually they allowed us to proceed by walking through Palestinian gardens rather than past Jewish houses. They explained that just as they would not allow right wing settler supporters to walk past Palestinian houses, they were not going to allow us – meeting with a Palestinian activist – to walk past Jewish houses. Issa had just been released from police custody after an altercation with a settler, who had followed him shouting “We can’t wait for ISIS to come and behead you all”. The settler was not detained.

We did not manage to plant all the trees we had hoped to. It was a slow process at times. Thorny bushes that take water away from the young saplings had to be uprooted. As I swung my pickaxe at the usurpers I looked around me at the surrounding Israeli settlements, which also deprive Palestinians of water. Whilst settlements boat swimming pools, vineyards and verdant parks, attempts to upgrade and augment water systems in Area C of the West Bank are met with demolition orders. I witnessed one such in the South Hebron Hills where the last of four water tanks belonging to a local Palestinian farmer was due to be demolished within 12 days of our visit.

200 trees were planted and 500 paid for by the delegation’s fund-raising. The solidarity day for 100 activists at the Tent of Nations, to plant the rest, had to be cancelled. Not for any of the reasons one might have feared or expected. But because the area was under a foot of snow!


Welcome to Tent of Nations – An Educational and Environmental Farm
People building bridges

At Tent of Nations our mission is building bridges between people, and between people to the land. We bring different cultures together to develop understanding and promote respect for each other and our shared environment.

To realise this mission, we run educational projects at Daher’s Vineyard, our organic farm, located in the hills southwest of Bethlehem, Palestine. Our farm is a center where people from many different countries come together to learn, to share and to build bridges of understanding and hope.

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